Exactly what is authentic cuisine today?

The word ‘authentic’ comes up nearly constantly. Brands have a pressure to be presented and understood as authentic. There’s a very good chance you will be disappointed by this article if you clicked for the answer to the title question. Because defining authentic cuisine is no simple task. There is no easy way for consumers to answer the question of what they believe is authentic. In fact, it’s easier to define what isn’t right that what is.

Authentic cuisine varies by region, nationality, experience and brand. If you grew up eating cooking from your family kitchen, a meal with the same name from anywhere else will seem wrong. It’s not cooked the way you’re used to, so something is off. This is why people endure ridiculous travel conditions to get home for Thanksgiving. Any other way isn’t home cooking; it isn’t the holiday.

Megan McCardle pulls the lens much wider in her piece from Bloomberg View. Tracing the true available ingredients and cooking methods of most common cuisines redefines most food as unrecognizable from the version we accept today. Not just inauthentic but totally different food.

If a consumer only ever had White Castle hamburgers, they would certainly not feel that Backyard Burgers was an authentic hamburger. Or any other kind except Krystal which is essentially the same thing. So, every consumer has a different sense of what an authentic burger experience is. But how does a burger brand define that when they’re trying to appeal to that same consumer? Because like brands, any cuisine is defined by so many factors and memories that it’s impossible for a brand to know what is right.

Natives of, or people that have spent time in a cuisine’s country of origin for example will be looking for certain cues about authenticity of the meal. There are ways around these. Pizza has found an interesting end around in the Fast Casual space which allows it to abstract authenticity with customization and wood fired ovens. The consumer is satisfied by controlling the experience and less focused on an authentic slice of New York pizza.

Is Olive Garden authentic? To an Italian citizen who travels to America, no. It will differ dramatically in most cases. It can’t be authentic Italian cuisine. But is it authentic in what the brand offers and to its core customers? As long as it delivers on the brand experience and expectation, it is. To thine own self be true. Every brand is struggling to be authentic; and in the logic of the Olive Garden example every brand can be.

More importantly, do consumers even care? There’s probably a reason most mass brands aren’t what we think of as authentic. Most people don’t care most of the time. A lot of consultants report that Millennials crave authenticity. Actually they want the right meal for the right occasion. Consumers are selective about when they want the experience they consider authentic. Day to day, people want what they know will meet their needs. Fast. Cheap. Flavor. Nearby. All things they can nail down. But authentic, not sure they can put their finger on that one.

Is brand heritage actually a strength?

So many new competitors. New formats. From people building out the Chipotle of _____ model to every cuisine to Eatsa re-introducing¬†automated ordering. Every brand is innovating. And it’s working. Older brands relying on heritage are racing to keep up.

If consumers come back to Pizza Inn is it really because of its heritage?

In this NRN interview with Rave Restaurants new CEO, Scott Crane cites the heritage of Pizza Inn as a strength of the brand. It’s telling that for its sister company Pie Five, Mr. Crane cites potential for innovation as its strength. That is the challenge older brands face.

Rave has a brand on either end of the continuum. Pizza Inn has certainly faced challenges but there is potential for a rebound as pizza has remained strong as a category even through the traffic trough of 2016. Pie Five has experienced growth, along with many fast casual and pizza brands. Pizza Inn has faltered in same store sales growth and average unit volume. But if consumers come back to Pizza Inn is it really because of its heritage? Is the food better because it’s been in business for 60 years? Is the experience unique?

The question is difficult to answer because so few brands stand pat. White Castle has been working to update their brand for the past 15 years, though the food offering and experience has remained largely in tact. Why? Because people come for the food. The olde English logotype wasn’t helping draw customers, but their unique sliders still did. In n’ Out Burger has not changed many things about their experience that would be obvious to most guests. They dependably execute the same food and experience but don’t lead with heritage in their marketing. Instead, they focus on the craveable burgers. Burger King has tried to keep up with the times, but dips back into their heritage in an ironic way, such as their recurring use of The King mascot. The mascot is a symbol of their heritage, but it is in no way explicit.

Another brand that could rely on a legacy story but chooses not to is Denny’s. Instead of almost ever acknowledging their heritage in diner foods, the brand acts very young and modern. They use social media more effectively than most tweens and they explore video and non-traditional media.

People are enamored with the new. With innovation. With disruptors. The number of brand categories in which heritage is a significant advantage is shrinking. Try to name one. Automotive may have been the last stronghold, but Tesla and a dozen startup local auto manufacturers are demonstrating that heritage isn’t necessarily a consumer benefit.

Looking at certain categories in the restaurant world there are places that heritage still plays. Steakhouses have proven that longevity and reputation for procuring the choicest beef and having a unique preparation are a consumer benefit. Morton’s, Smith & Wollensky, Ruth’s Chris own a version of this by having a unique heritage. But visit Morton’s website and see that even they are more focused on the new. New dishes, a new TV tie in. They put heritage in the back seat. Is this a miss on the part of the brand? Or do they know that the brand heritage doesn’t drive visits?

Brands that do focus on heritage know one important thing. They had better deliver on that promise. If a brand like Real Mex’s El Torito asserts itself as authentic Mexican cuisine using the 60 year old recipes of its founder, the food and the experience better align with that promise. If it does, customers can be wowed. When it falls short of authentic, guests notice.

From a brand perspective, finding something unique about a company that separates it from competitors is fantastic. Heritage may be that unique element. There are pitfalls to putting a focus on heritage, especially when walking the tightrope of staying current in the age of constant innovation. The critical exercise that restaurant brands must do is explaining why that heritage is worth my dining dollars.